School reform lacking how-to's

October 03, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

To the extent that education has come up at all in a highly distracted campaign season, the debate over the landmark No Child Left Behind reform law has run along two well-worn paths. From the left, Democrats argue that the 2001 law is falling short because President Bush has underfunded an otherwise well-intended reform. From the right, conservative Republicans criticize the law for violating the autonomy of states and local school districts.

But talk to educators and others involved in implementing the law, and a third view of the law's shortcomings emerges that counters both the standard liberal and conservative critiques. The problem, some say, is not so much that there isn't enough money or too much regulation -- the problem is that there isn't enough federal guidance for states, districts and schools trying to decide how best to make use of the money that has been made available.

The roots of the problem, some of the law's critics say, is the country's age-old preoccupation with "local control" of education, which has kept it from adopting the kind of centralized curricula that are common in other Western countries. At the same time that the federal government, for the first time, is holding states to strict testing standards, it is reluctant to set central guidelines on how schools should best meet these requirements, for fear of violating the dearly held prerogative of local communities to educate their students as they see fit.

In theory, of course, it's hard to argue with letting local educators make decisions that are suited to their unique student populations. But for the federal government to honor this autonomy at the same time that it is enforcing such challenging test requirements can have a schizophrenic effect: Schools are being told that they had better get their scores up (or face penalties like big funding cuts or state takeover), but they are being told very little about how to go about doing that.

"To me, the saddest part about how the law is being interpreted and executed is that it's all about compliance," said Margaret Honey, director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York. "It's not about helping people determine how to do [education] better, it's threatening that if you don't do it, you're going to lose stuff."

This flaw in the law is particularly visible, some educators say, in the realm of education technology, the subject of a recent series in The Sun. With its strict requirements for improving test scores, No Child Left Behind encourages schools to buy education software, both test-preparation programs that promise to produce dramatic gains in scores and management programs that promise to track all the data required by the law. The law also makes it easier for districts to buy software by giving districts more flexibility in using federal funds intended for poor students.

What the law doesn't do, though, is give schools any real guidance in what kind of technology to invest in as they try to meet the law's demands. The U.S. Department of Education is paying for more than $50 million in studies of various software programs, but most of them won't be done for two years, by which point many districts will have made big purchases.

And even if better research on education technology were available today, it's doubtful that the federal government would use it to make clear recommendations to states and schools, so wary is it of being seen as telling districts to purchase one form of technology over another.

For instance, the education department's new What Works Clearinghouse Web site stops short of stating that a given software program or textbook curriculum works or doesn't work. Instead, it simply evaluates the validity of existing studies on the products. While helpful in some cases, this still often leaves school administrators unsure whether a given program or curriculum would be good for their students.

Similarly, while the department spent $54 million, with the help of the Broad Foundation, to create a Web site, school- results.org, where nationwide test results are collected, the department is reluctant to require districts to make use of the site or to dissuade them from buying programs that perform an overlapping function.

"All education is local control. Local entities need to decide what's best for them. We can't tell anybody what to do," said Susan D. Patrick, the department's director of educational technology. "We can tell how to do all sorts of things, but we can't [dictate spending]. It's not our role."

It is this vacuum, between the high bars set by the law and the lack of accompanying federal guidance, that many software vendors have found so easy to exploit. Left without strong signals from above, schools officials are left relying on casual endorsements from other schools and, most of all, on the well-tailored pitches of vendors.

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